A white gunman killed nine people Wednesday night when he opened fired during bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., police said.
During an overnight news conference, the city’s police chief Greg Mullen said he believed the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a hate crime. The mayor echoed Mullen’s sentiment.
“An evil and hateful person took the lives of citizens who had come to worship and pray together,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said. After the news conference, he added, “To walk into a church and shoot someone, is out of pure hatred.”
Police say the suspect is still at-large.
Whatever the shooter’s motivations, the attack took place in the context of continued state violence against black people in South Carolina and effectively terrorized a community with a legacy of slavery and racist violence.
“It’s not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom,” Robert Greene, who studies the 20th century South at the University of South Carolina, told the Washington Post. “That’s why so many folks are so upset tonight, because it’s a church that represents so much about the rich history and tradition of African Americans in Charleston.”
Emanuel AME, also known as “Mother Emanuel,” is the oldest AME church in the South. Denmark Vesey was a church leader and former slave who planned a thwarted slave revolt that was scheduled for June 14, 1822, and rescheduled to June 16, 1822 — one day and 193 years before yesterday’s shooting. Vesey was arrested, charged and executed (along with 34 others) all by July 2 of the same year. Later, his son was also convicted in the plot and deported from the United States.
1861 profile in The Atlantic: Denmark Vesey, Forgotton Hero by abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson
In February 2014, a group of activists unveiled a life-size statue of the abolitionist leader, and Vesey again became the subject of scrutiny. One critic who opposed the statue said it was wrong for the city to honor a “terrorist.”
“Those serious about fighting a ‘war on terror’ might want to start in Charleston, where plans have been made to erect a statue honoring terrorist Denmark Vesey,” he wrote.
Last night, the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed in the shooting. Pinckney, also a state senator, helped coordinate a vigil for Walter Scott, a black man who was killed by a police officer in nearby North Charleston on April 4.
Pinckney campaigned for body camera legislation, co-sponsoring a bill that was recently signed into law by the governor.
“Body cameras help to record what happens,” Pinckney said. “It may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but it helps to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop.”
Amid all of this, an Op-Ed in The New York Times yesterday pointed out that the biggest threat of domestic terrorism today still comes from right-wing extremists.
As we push for a truly inclusive, multiracial democracy, we have to tackle racism head-on. Last night’s shooting rampage is a tragic reminder that until we fully acknowledge racism — past and present — communities will be threatened and racist violence is likely to continue. It is up to all of us to make sure that it stops.
Kalia Abiade is the advocacy director at the Center for New Community and managing editor of Imagine 2050.